Books: Final curtain for the shocking horror show

It's time to scrap those cyborgs. Scary genetic science owes popular culture a new mythology, argues Marina Benjamin

Frankenstein's Footsteps

by Jon Turney

Yale University Press, pounds 19.95

Amid the brouhaha surrounding the birth of Dolly the sheep - the calls for strict regulation of embryological research combined with warnings that the integrity of life itself was threatened - few of us paused to consider the gap between science fact and science fiction. Instead, we imagined that a simple 12-step programme was all that lay between Dolly and Jurassic Park, just as earlier we had believed that only a slip of the test-tube separated recombinant DNA from The Andromeda Strain, and IVF technology from Aldous Huxley's "hatcheries".

As Jon Turney points out, almost every breakthrough in biotechnology has been greeted with a familiar hue and cry. Are we right to meddle with processes we do not fully understand? What powers are we unleashing? Have we gone too far in our bid to control life? Where will it all end? The answer to these questions is always the same: yes, yes, yes and, as one critic put it, "test-tube babies, Hitler and the Master Race".

Looming behind such fears, argues Turney, is the spectre of Frankenstein, the mad fictional doctor obsessed with obtaining God-like powers. He suggests that Mary Shelley's story has retained its power because it speaks directly to our anxieties about body violation and our need to maintain a stable identity. Turney traces the life of the Frankenstein myth as it has accompanied biologists through their travails, sprouting new forms along the way. His prime sources are newspapers, popular science books, films, novels and cartoons.

All the usual suspects are present. Dr Jekyll and Dr Moreau cast their shadow over vivisectionists and Brave New World brings to account those dabblers in ectogenesis. But one of this book's delights is that it draws attention to lesser-known fictions such as Julian Huxley's "The Tissue Culture King", which takes its anti-hero Hascombe into darkest Africa, where he beguiles a tribe with the mysteries of blood histology.

With Dolly behind us, Turney suspects that our tendency to frame debates about biotechnology in terms of Frankenstein will fade. In one sense, this should have happened sooner, since all Mary Shelley had to build on were twitching frogs' legs and the rumour that Erasmus Darwin had induced a piece of vermicelli to move of its own accord.

In spite of its juicy detail, sometimes reads like a trainspotter's manual: one gets hungry for analysis. Does Turney think the scientific imagination and the SF imagination have anything in common? How far have scientists internalised the Frankenstein myth? And what does he make of the fact that contraception and IVF - ostensibly the products of masculine science run riot - have given power to women?

To the extent that we have begun anthropomorphising our own genes (by according them goals and desires) perhaps we need a new monster-myth to speak out for ambivalence towards biotechnology. It would need to be a viral myth - to address our current fears of sabotage from within.

Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
peopleThreats follows actress' speech on feminism and equality at the UN
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
Arts and Entertainment
Worldwide ticket sales for The Lion King musical surpassed $6.2bn ($3.8bn) this summer
tvMusical is biggest grossing show or film in history
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Business Analyst/ Project Manager - Financial Services

    £60000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client in the Financial...

    Science Teacher

    £85 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunity for Secondary ...

    Year 6 Teacher - Flintshire

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Chester: Key Stage 2 Teachers needed in Flintsh...

    Year 6 Teacher

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Chester: Year 6 Teachers urgently needed for su...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits